SNOW HILL — Worcester County students got a unique look at democracy in action when seven of them filled in for the County Commissioners in the annual “Students in Government” event this week.
The students were presented with a variety of real scenarios that the commission dealt with over the course of the year and were tasked with voting on matters like a proposed campground amendment, armed security in schools and a working FY13/14 budget for the entire county.
Arguably the most difficult decision the student commission had to make was how to balance a budget for all of Worcester. They were presented with a scenario where they would need to shave off $2,776,000 to balance the budget with the current tax rate. The commission voted unanimously, though with reluctance, to eliminate $450,000 requested by Animal Control for a new building. The students also cut a proposed salary increase for county employees from 2-percent to 1-percent, saving another $1 million as well as eliminating iPad computer labs for five elementary schools at $150,000.
The students were hesitant to make any more cuts, however, and President Gary Qian, a senior at Stephen Decatur High School, suggested the county consider a small property tax bump to make up the difference.
“What would be the effect on the county if the property tax is raised by 2 cents?” he asked.
Phil Thompson, finance officer for the county, explained that the tax increase would balance the budget with about $250,000 left in surplus. However, it might not be the most popular move in light of an increase last year.
“We did increase taxes 7 cents last year. That was the first increase that we’ve seen in this county in more than a decade,” he told the students.
The students voted unanimously to make the tough decision and theoretically raise property taxes by 2 cents to a total of 79 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation.
The students had to make some other critical decisions during their day in government. After hearing a passionate Sheriff Reggie Mason explain his department’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 and his shared belief with the Board of Education that armed deputies are needed in schools, the students again voted unanimously to approve the $1,572,857 expense. They were also unanimous in approving the $39,975,478 proposed bid for a new Snow Hill High School.
They only item where the student commission was not unanimous was in a vote to approve a legislative change that would allow plastic covers to be used to enclose porches on co-operative campgrounds. The students split the vote 4-3, narrowly approving the use of plastic. The vote coincidently mirrored the vote of the actual Worcester County Commission back in December, where the soft plastic was also just barely approved.
After their day in the commissioners’ shoes, the students agreed that it was a learning experience to be on the other side of the table.
“There’s nothing quite like sitting in the chair, is there?” asked Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson.
“I hope this gives you a different view of what we have to do at the county level and what government actually means,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
Dr. Barry Tull, Headmaster for Worcester Preparatory School, told the seven students that they “did a wonderful job and represented your schools well.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting applauded the students’ ability to debate without fighting.
“I think you all did a great job working together as a group of seven, which is hard to do,” he said.